A Look at Astros Mascots



You’ll see them running along the field before the game. One might find them dancing on top of a dugout in between innings and tossing t-shirts into the crowd. They’ll also be found along the concourse posing with kids and adults alike.  You also might find one performing a prank on the visiting team.  I’m talking about baseball mascots.  From Cincinnati’s “running man” to New York’s “Mr. Met” to Philadelphia’s “Phanatic”, baseball has seen its share of fluffy, fun characters parading throughout ballparks across the country.

The first Astros mascot actually wasn’t a cartoon or “thing”. He didn’t wear a fluffy costume with a jelly-belly but his background was built in space…sort of.  In January, 1965 Astros president Roy Hofheinz introduced comedian Bill Dana as the new team mascot.  Dana had been known on television with various appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and would appear as the “honorary eighth astronaut, Jose Jimenez”.  He appeared at the Astrodome performing comedic skits before games and dressed in a full Astros uniform.  Dana rubbed elbows with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Alan Shepard on Opening Day, 1965 when twenty-two U.S. astronauts tossed the ceremonial first pitch at the Astrodome. 

Upon seeing the Dome for the first time, Dana quipped, “If they would build a cemetery behind home plate, you’d never have to leave this place.  You really need a new word to describe it, and I guess the best word would be ‘astro-nomical’.  This is the ninth wonder of the world- one for each inning.  I can just hear the vendors in the stands now- ‘get your peanuts, popcorn, and caviar.’ With all these windows, they ought to put up a sign saying, ‘No Ball Playing Allowed.’  I guess they will have to revise ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ to ‘Take Me Into The Ball Game’. 

Bill Dana’s stint in Houston was short-lived, but secondary mascots emerged with Astrodome “Earthmen” who dressed in orange flight suits and space helmets serving on the grounds crew and vacuuming the Astroturf field before every Astros game.  There were many times that the crowd cheered on their Earthmen in action.  During games, “Chester Charge” appeared on the large Astrodome scoreboard leading the charge with a bugle for Astros fans.  The brainchild of Astrodome cartoonist Ed Henderson, Chester Charge appeared as a mascot in costume on the field during the 1970’s. 

The 1980’s saw the emergence of two Astros mascots.  Astrojack (a rabbit) and Astrodillo (an armadillo) appeared before and during Astros games dressed in the rainbow splash of orange, red and yellow team colors.  They would race around the field on three-wheelers and perform skits with the Dome’s Dixieland band, The Astronuts.  They were the first Houston mascots to circle around the seating levels of the Astrodome and interact directly with fans.

The Astros were without a mascot for a few years until January, 1990.  A new, jovial space alien simply name “Orbit” was introduced at Heflin Elementary School in Houston.  It was said Orbit was born on the “Sixth Moon on Fifth Planet in the 19th Galaxy in the solar system.”  Orbit clearly had baseball experience having played “third nebulux in the fourth dimension for the Orion Craters”, who won the Solar Series after he led the team with 2,040,850 space runs.  Orbit claimed pitchers with 23 arms tended to throw a nasty curveball.  Pop-ups from Orbit’s former world were said to have “taken up to four days to re-enter the atmosphere.” 

Orbit became an instant hit with Astros fans, blasting around the Astrodome in his shoulder-rainbow jersey and later switching to the midnight blue and gold of the late nineties. Orbit enjoyed a ten season run at the Astrodome, with his time in Houston ending after the 1999 season when the Astros were set to move into a new, modern, retractable-roofed ballpark in the heart of downtown Houston.  Orbit spent a year at with the Rookie League Martinsville Astros during the 2000 season before seemingly returning to his former home in deep space.     

“General Admission” debuted in the outfield pavilion seats in the midst of Orbit’s first tenure in Houston.  The General, in a blue and gold uniform, stood at his watch during every Astros at-bat and would fire his home run cannon from center field with the crack of each Astros homer.  This character, too, was gone after the final season played in the Astrodome.  Local actor Michael Kenny, who played General Admission, reappeared as the engineer of the Enron Field train along the outfield tracks in 2000.  Kenny passed along train duties to Enron Field tour guide and local writer, Bobby Vasquez, who has remained atop the tracks since 2001.  Michael Kenny moved on to become the Enron Field Tour Manager and today oversees the Astros Guest Services Department.

With the move to Enron Field in 2000 the Astros introduced Junction Jack, a rabbit dressed in a train conductor’s outfit.  The design captured the historical quality of the original ballpark site as a train station.  Junction Jack was created by local Houston artist, Logan Goodson, who also created the Astrodillo and Astrojack mascots. The idea of using a rabbit stemmed from then-Astros president Bob McLaren, whose young daughter loved bunnies.  Junction Jack eventually shed his conductor uniform for a full pinstripe Astros uniform of the 2000s and saw the great playoff runs of the 2004 and 2005 seasons. 

In 2012, the Astros began the process of rebranding the team with new colors and uniforms that coincided with Jim Crane’s new ownership group.  The Astros embraced their origins and history with the team emerging in navy and orange, the original team colors used from 1962-1993, on November 2nd.  With a modernized nod to the past, the Astros called upon an old friend and Orbit made his comeback to Houston with a motorcade straight from NASA.  His return has brought back memories from his days at the Astrodome and is certainly set to create more as he dons the new navy, orange, red and yellow Astros jersey of today. 

From Bill Dana, Chester Charge, Astrodillo, Junction Jack and Orbit, all of these characters have added entertainment during Astros games over five decades of major league baseball in Houston.  They create entertainment and humor in addition to providing a lighter side of sports.  The Colt .45s never had a mascot roaming the stands at Colt Stadium.  Perhaps the 90-degree heat summer heat of Houston would’ve proven an early demise of a gun-slinging character of the Old West.  It seems Roy Hofheinz had the right mind to wait until they moved into the 72-degree domed stadium.  Sounds like a wise choice to me.

Rained-In at the Dome

Fans of the movie Bull Durham will usually remember a great quote that said, “A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.”

When the Astrodome opened in 1965 rain-outs became a thing of the past for Houston baseball. As a result, the rain check basically became obsolete. Houston had just completed a $31 million domed sports palace under the direction of Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz. Standing much like a flying saucer that had landed in the middle of southwest Houston; the Astrodome featured an 18-story roof and 6,600 tons of air-conditioning keeping this new environment a perfect 72 degrees in any season. “I knew with our heat, humidity and rain that the best chance for success was in the direction of a weather-proof, all-purpose stadium,” stated Hofheinz. Baseball games would be expected to always start on time. Despite man’s best efforts Mother Nature eventually found a way to make her stance, although it took eleven years after Houston’s “Eighth Wonder of the World” opened.

A rare summer cool front passed through Houston on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 15, 1976. Mixed with the warm air off the Gulf of Mexico just 50 miles to the south, a series of torrential downpours broke from the skies across the city. People began to encounter rising water on roads and highways as rush hour approached. Over seven inches of rain fell within a six hour period with no apparent end in sight.

The Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates were set to play the second contest of a three game series that night at the Astrodome. Houston lost the series opener 2-1 the night before when former Astro Jerry Reuss won over Astros fire-baller J.R. Richard. The Astros started June on a hot streak, winning eight of the first ten games in June but were now on a four-game losing skid with a 29-33 record. Both teams already arrived to the Astrodome in the early afternoon before the weather got worse. The pregame rituals of baseball players were well underway in the dry and well-protected catacombs of the Dome clubhouses.

News of city-wide flooding spread to the Astros front office as conditions began to worsen outside the Astrodome. It was reported that streets in the nearby Texas Medical Center were flooding. The outlying areas around the Astrodome also had high water along nearby access roads. Many Houstonians across the city were caught in sudden flash flooding and were forced to leave their vehicles. As time approached for Astrodome gates to open, there was already a clear sign of trouble. A number of Astros game-day employees couldn’t get to work because of the storm and there was a clear absence of fans arriving for the game. Word soon arrived that the umpiring crew got caught in flooded streets and it appeared they would not make it to the stadium at any time soon. At the very least, this game appeared to heading for a delay in start time.

Astros General Manager, Tal Smith, quickly assessed the situation and made the decision to postpone the game. The safety of fans and employees became the main concern. “We could’ve played the game. But if we announced that it was on, we would have been inviting misfortune. Many would have tried to make it and would have become stranded. We just felt it best to postpone it,” stated Smith.

Less than twenty fans did manage to make it to the Astrodome and found themselves stranded with no game to watch. They were treated to dinner in one of the stadium cafeterias by the Astros. The players decided to set up dinner tables on the field behind second base once the game was cancelled. Many of the Astros and Pirates were already dressed for the game. The few game-day employees who were able to make it to the Dome joined dinner on the field.

History once again had been made at the Houston Astrodome. A game had been cancelled on account of rain. “It wasn’t exactly a rain-out…it was a rain-in. We were bone dry inside,” said an Astrodome spokesman. The Astrodome actually had a history of small leaks during heavy rain, but a new roof had been installed during the 1974-75 offseason. This date actually wasn’t the first time Mother Nature intervened at the Dome. Rain previously caused a 54-minute delay to the start of an Astros game in 1975 when a five-inch downpour caused players and fans to arrive late. The “rain-in” game of 1976 was the first time an Astrodome game had been called due to rain, but it was not the first postponement. An exhibition game between the Astros and Minnesota Twins was cancelled on April 7, 1968 to mourn the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated three days prior. Before the days of the Astrodome, there had been just three actual rainouts at old Colt Stadium (all in 1962), where the Astros were previously named the Colt .45s.

The Astros extended their losing streak to six games following the rain-in but finally snapped it in Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium on June 20th. The June 15th game was rescheduled as part of a double header on August 15th in which the Astros were swept. In a season where the Astros were being operated by creditors following the bankruptcy of Roy Hofheinz, 1976 saw plenty of ups and downs. In the midst of it all were rumors on the sale of the Astros. On the field, J.R. Richard became Houston’s second 20-game winner, Cesar Cedeno won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove and Larry Dierker hurled the fifth no-hitter in franchise history. But no one that year will forget the day a game was called at the Astrodome on account of rain.

A Short Tale of Two Leagues


In 1900 the American League declared major league status, same as on the line with the National League, which was founded as the first and only major league since 1876. The NL fought the battle, but gave in and in 1903 the World Series was born. In late 1960 another battle with the American League appeared to loom. Houston and New York were awarded National League expansion franchises on October 17th with play slated to begin with the 1962 season. For a short time, however, it appeared Houston may have had an opportunity to begin play in 1961…in the American League.

In 1960 the American League created a big stir within baseball when it announced the move of the Washington Senators to Minnesota (becoming the Twins), replacement in Washington with an expansion franchise (again called the Senators) and a tenth AL team in Los Angeles, where the NL Brooklyn Dodgers had relocated two years prior in 1958. Some thought a more logical choice than Los Angeles would be a city that was a former member of the infamous Continental League, which was created to force and persuade major league owners to expand to more U.S. cities in the early 1960s. Thoughts circled to Dallas/Ft. Worth, a former member of the CL, as a worthy suitor for an AL franchise. A bump in the road occurred when Walter O’Malley, owner of the Dodgers, forbid any team from playing at the LA Memorial Coliseum where his team was playing until Dodger Stadium was finished being built. O’Malley held the contract for the stadium and he did not want any additional tenants.

In November of 1960, just weeks after Houston was awarded the NL franchise, news emerged from the Minor League meetings in Louisville, Kentucky that the American League made a proposal which had both leagues playing in 1961 with nine teams playing an interleague schedule. It was said Houston would be chosen as the ninth team in the NL because their organization was further along than the expansion franchise given to New York. The plan for Houston would’ve had Major League Baseball playing at Busch Stadium (formerly Buff Stadium) where the minor league Buffs played their home games. Territorial rights still had not been settled with the owners of the Buffs by the Houston Sports Association, owners of the Houston expansion franchise.

Speculation quickly rose, however, that Houston was also likely to gain an American League franchise with the Houston Buffs if the Los Angeles stadium situation with Walter O’Malley was not cleared. At the forefront of this news was William Hopkins, the majority stockholder and President of the Houston Buffs. Hopkins was ready to finance and organize the Houston Buffs transfer into the American League for the 1961 season. The owners of the Buffs were ready to pay territorial rights to the American Association, where they had been playing since 1959 after moving from the Texas League. Busch Stadium (formerly Buff Stadium) was solely owned by the Hopkins group and had plans to expand the stadium to 30,655 for 1961 and 46,000 by 1962. Houston, it appeared, was almost set to have both AL and NL franchises similar to what was seen in Chicago, New York, St. Louis and planned for Los Angeles.

By this time, however, Houston and Harris County already voted on a bond issued for a domed stadium (The Astrodome) that would seat at least 43,000 for the Houston Sports Association, the ownership group of the NL expansion franchise. William Hopkins’ group once tried to join the HSA in efforts to get MLB to Houston but was denied. It appeared there was some bad blood brewing between the Buffs and the new NL major league franchise.

In late November, 1960 baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced his opposition by stating, “Any effort by the American League to move into the Houston territory at this time would, in the opinion of the commissioner, be a complete abrogation of all agreements and understandings in connections with the expansion program.” Warren Giles, President of the National League, also stated, “The American League has no more right to go into Houston than the National League into Detroit or any other major league city. As far as I’m concerned, Houston and New York are members of the National League even though they won’t operate clubs until 1962.”

This opposition by baseball’s top brass had William Hopkins quickly responding in defiance. “This territory belongs to the Houston Buffs and the American Association,” he stated. Hopkins also reiterated that the Houston Sports Association had not completed a purchase of the Buffs and associated territorial rights for bringing a major league franchise to Houston. Numbers had been exchanged but nothing settled. It is worth noting that while the news of a possible AL shift to Houston was coming out of the minor league meetings in Louisville, the General Manager of the Buffs, H. B. (Spec) Richardson (future General Manager of the Houston Astros) had a more calming tone when commenting on the matter. “We, in Houston, have no intention of standing in the way of our city entering the major leagues. They (the HSA) have rejected all of our bids, offering $362,500 for the franchise which we do not consider adequate.” The Buffs offered a purchase price of $600,000.

The HSA, always knowing they needed the purchase territorial rights from the Buffs, were very dedicated to staying on the timeline of major league owners in making appropriate plans and presentations regarding a stadium. The group, led by Judge Roy Hofheinz, knew the big key to getting a major league franchise was making sure the domed stadium they proposed was actually built and supported by Houston and Harris County. The HSA felt the rest would fall into place as formalities of bringing the majors to Houston. In early December, 1960 the National League gave the HSA permission to begin to sign players as soon as they cleared any issues with territorial rights.

In the end, the American League did arrive to Los Angeles in 1961. The Angels began playing at Wrigley Field, which had been home to the minor league Angels for decades. The Los Angeles Wrigley Field was designed to look much like the north side Chicago counterpart (minus the ivy walls). To further the carbon copy the ballpark was even named for William Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs. The ownership group of the transplanted Washington Senators encountered an early fight with the American Association in Minnesota over costs of territorial rights as they reemerged as the Twins. The new replacement franchise in Washington D.C., also called the Senators, eventually moved to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.

In Texas, the Houston Sports Association did purchase the Buffs and all territorial rights by mid-January, 1961 and operated the team in the American Association for the final year of minor league baseball in Houston. The final price was $393,750 which was well below the original asking price by William Hopkins. The HSA quickly decided not to continue the name into the National League. The American League in Houston for 1961 was never really more than a short tale of tug of war during an era where the majors were expanding and the minors had to protect their interests. The Houston Colt .45’s emerged in 1962 in the National League playing at Colt Stadium, next to the domed stadium construction site. The Buffs, under ownership of the Colt .45’s, moved to Oklahoma City as Houston’s minor league club and became the 89ers. In three years the .45’s changed their name to the Astros with their home base in the Houston Astrodome, “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” The rest is history. After fifty years in the National League, the Astros have now become members of the American League and balancing the NL and AL by 15 teams each. It has ironically brought this short, but interesting tale full circle.

Early Voices

BOOTH 1999
I’m a native Houstonian. I grew up watching Astros games in the Astrodome. There was something about driving across town, seeing the Dome from Loop 610 and watching it get closer as we entered the massive parking lot. There were a few times we’d arrive the “back way” and drive up through the Medical Center on Fannin, entering through the Holly Hall gate, which meant we’d walk through the centerfield doors and under the larger-than-life Astrodome scoreboard. Coming down Murworth Drive meant we were entering behind home plate. As a kid the anticipation excited me. We’d walk up to the gate and felt that rush of air conditioning as soon as the glass door was pulled open. I remember hearing the whisk of air through the air system above. My dad took me to numerous games and we sat everywhere. We had seats in the orange Mezzanine level most of the time. It was like entering a whole new world every time the doors to the Astrodome opened. It was a true Houston experience.

In 1999, the final baseball season in the Astrodome, it was a dream come true for me working as an intern in the Astros Broadcast Department. I remember my first day walking into the radio booth and seeing Milo Hamilton’s books, lineup cards and game notes he would be using for the broadcast. I also made a personal observance that he was sitting in the same spot Gene Elston sat in from 1965-1986 when he was the “Voice of the Astros”. Milo was a great influence on me. He showed me his system for keeping track of the game and being able to give stats and recaps without overpowering the listener with numbers. He became a good friend who was very willing to share what worked for him. In addition I was able to meet Bill Brown, the television voice of the Astros. As with Milo, his knowledge of baseball was an inspiration and was always willing to help this young intern. As the 1999 season progressed I was able to meet visiting broadcasters such as Harry Kalas, Jack Buck and Vin Scully. I was keeping stats in the Astros radio booth as well as updates of out of town scores from around the league. This is where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a radio voice for the Astros.

October 3, 1999 was one of the most personally historic days of my career. The final regular season game at the Astrodome was taking place and I wanted to take in as much of the day as possible. I was going to take lots of photos and decided to arrive at the Dome earlier than usual. I arrived around 9am and got my things settled in the radio booth. I decided to have a quick breakfast before things began to pick up around the stadium. As I walked to the media dining room along the press level concourse I noticed it didn’t appear anyone else had arrived to the press box yet. I walked into the dining room where a fresh breakfast buffet was spread out and grabbed a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns. The room had just opened and there were a few dining employees around. I sat down at one of the many empty tables and caught ESPN on a nearby monitor. A few minutes after sitting down I noticed in my periphery another person walk in. It was Vin Scully. He strode in wearing a light blue sports coat with white shirt and tie. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town for this final weekend series against the Astros. I had met Mr. Scully earlier in the season on a previous series against the Dodgers. He walked into the room, grabbed a plate of breakfast and walked over to the table where I was sitting and asked, “Well good morning. Do you mind if I sit with you?” I was amazed. Here, a legend of broadcasting, in the Astrodome on the morning of the final regular season game in its history, wanted to sit with me (an intern). The next twenty minutes were some of the greatest I have ever known. There we sat, Vin Scully and me, talking about old baseball stories and his memories of coming to the Astrodome for the first time in the 1960s when it was brand new. He spoke of Judge Roy Hofheinz (creator of the Astrodome), the first time he saw Astroturf on the field and even a few early notes about his work with Red Barber. There were plenty of other empty tables, but he chose to sit at mine.

What I took most from this experience was the human element of Vin Scully. It transcended baseball. He was very forthcoming and friendly. There was no sense of pretense. We seemed to speak the same language with baseball. It set a standard for me at an early part of my career and I’ve never forgotten it as I continue my career with the Astros today. Shortly after the ’99 season I began broadcasting high school and college baseball and football. I was also fortunate enough to become a backup public address announcer for Astros games. It continues to build today.

I keep a picture in my office at Minute Maid Park today taken by my dad of the Astros radio booth on the final game ever played at the Astrodome. It shows our announcers (Milo, Alan Ashby and Bill Brown) on the front row and radio producer Mike Cannon and myself on the second row as we all got ready for another broadcast. It may have been the final year in the Astrodome, but it was the first of my career with the Astros. We all have our eyes set on goals in life. The good standards that are set for us also help us continue them for others. This photo reminds me everyday.

What’s In The Astros Name?


On January 17, 1961, three months after Houston was awarded a Major League franchise, the Houston Sports Association purchased the minor league Houston Buffs to operate in the American Association.  The group, led by Judge Roy Hofheinz and R.E. “Bob” Smith, paid nearly $400,000 to the owners of the Buffs who also gave territorial rights.  The original asking price had been around $100,000 just a few years earlier.  Times were different.  MLB was coming to Houston in just over a year and the HSA needed those rights in order to move on as a franchise.  Once the deal was done it didn’t take very long for the stockholders of the HSA to determine the Buffs name would not be carried into the majors for the 1962 season.  Out with the old and in with the new.  The HSA ownership group made plans for a name-the-team contest.  There has been some speculation that not carrying the Buffs name tied to animosity during the Buffs negotiations.

Over the next six weeks there were more than 12,000 entries sent to the offices of the Houston Sports Association.  Mail was received from 39 states as well as Canada, England, France, Spain and Turkey.  Two students from the University of Houston spent an estimated 150 hours sorting through entry names and eventually narrowing them to around 75 choices.  By the time the list was whittled down to 30 names, the clear fan choice was “Rebels”.

In early March, 1961 the list of entry names had been shortened to Colts, Generals, Hawks, Longhorns, Ravens, Spurs and Stars.  That list was quickly narrowed to Colts, Spurs and Ravens.  William Neder, a Houston salesman, chose “Colts” on his entry.  What he wrote on his entry instantly caught the eyes of the Houston front office.  Neder wrote, “The Colt .45 won the west and will win the National League.”  On March 8th the Houston Sports Association announced the name of the first Major League team in Texas would be “Colts”.  The name was a personal favorite of team Vice-President George Kirksey, who oversaw the contest.  Neder was quoted, “I thought Colt was a good name but then I saw the Colt .45 and I thought well, you know, Colt .45s would be even better than playing Colts because there probably be about four or five hundred people entering that name.  So I entered the name Colt .45 as the gun rather than as the horse and as the tie-breaker I put ‘the Colt .45 was the gun that won the west and would win the National League.’ It’s the only contest I ever entered in my life. The first one and the last one.”  William Neder won all-expenses paid round trip to the 1961 World Series for his winning entry.

The Colts name did have some early confusion and the HSA explained the moniker symbolized the old cowboy pistol and not a horse. In November, 1961 the name was permanently modified to “Colt .45’s”.  George Kirksey gave a clear set of qualifications in choosing a name for the new Houston team.  It had to be easy to say and remember.  The name would also have to be different and distinctive from other baseball team names. A former sportswriter himself, Kirksey also wanted the name to be easily adaptable to news headlines.  Overall, the name had to have a certain “romance” or sentiment to its meaning.  Kirksey stated, “The name Colts, in tribute to the gun which played such a tremendous part in civilizing the West, met all four requirements perfectly.” Media speculation had team nicknames for the Colt .45’s as “Forty-Fives”, “.45s”, “Six-Shooters” and “Sharpshooters”.

On April 10, 1962 the Houston Colt .45’s opened their first season with an 11-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs at their new (albeit temporary) home, Colt Stadium.  The massive skeletal frame of a domed stadium slowly rose during the next three seasons over the first base side of the stadium, which was the true future of baseball in Houston.  The Colt .45’s name would not extend to the Astrodome.  The firearm company of the same name wanted to share revenues with the team for using the name.  Team President Roy Hofheinz wanted no part of revenue sharing so he hired an unnamed artist to begin concepts of a new name and identity for the 1965 season when the Domed Stadium was scheduled to open.  This artist attended twenty-five games at Colt Stadium in 1964 and came up with just as many sketches for a new look.  Hofheinz publicly announced on October 1, 1964 the end of the Colt .45’s name with the last game of the season.  All focus was on the opening of the new and revolutionary domed stadium and Hofheinz did not want to deter any attention from this new sports palace. On October 9th he announced the new stadium would open with an exhibition series against the 1964 American League champion New York Yankees.

On December 1, 1964, Roy Hofheinz announced that the Harris County Domed Stadium would be called the “Astrodome” and the Colt .45’s would become the “Astros” in 1965.  Hofheinz stated, “We felt the space idea was more logical because the ball club is in Houston- Space City U.S.A., and our spring training headquarters is in Cocoa Beach, Fla. at Cape Kennedy- Launching Pad, U.S.A.  The name and insignia will help dispel the image Texas as a land of cowboys and Indians, and it behooves every citizen in this area to call attention to the 20th century aspects of Texas and Houston.”  A little over a week later the Astros unveiled their new logo that displayed baseballs in orbit around a depiction of the Astrodome.  The colors used by Houston since 1962, navy and orange, were carried into the new identity of the Astros.  It was the first time a team depicted its stadium in their primary logo.

The Astros name was not without its doubters.  In January, 1965 an organization called CETA (Call ‘Em Tros association) was formed and distributed bumper stickers that had the “AS” part of the Astros name marked out.  Handouts were passed out featuring the phrase, “Refuse to recognize the name.”  Another small group named the Astro-Suppression Society, intended on passing out stickers saying, “Let’s Call Them the Houston Astronauts.”  The name controversy was short-lived.

Since 1965 the name “Astros” has become a staple for generations of baseball fans in Houston. Many of us can recall going to games in the Astrodome as kids, listening to Gene Elston’s call of the action on Astros radio or wearing our favorite rainbow jersey to the game.  Some of us fall under the “all of the above category”.  The 2012 season celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Major League Baseball in Houston with the Astros wearing several uniforms of the past; including the original Colt .45’s uniform.  Dozens of former players who made so many baseball memories in Houston were honored on the field at Minute Maid Park. In the fall of 2012 the Astros returned to their roots of navy and orange, which were worn from 1962-1993.

When the Colt .45’s appeared in the sixties everyone thought of the gun of the wild-west.  When the Astrodome opened in 1965 everyone changed their direction to the association of NASA and the Astronauts based in Houston.  Today we look back on the Astros name and think, “Wynn”, “Dierker”, “Aspromonte”, “Cedeno”, “Richard”, “Ryan”, “Biggio” or “Bagwell”.  The list can go on and on.  That is what a Houston Astro is.  The Astros are the people who carry on and mold a tradition of baseball in Houston. They are a public trust and a staple of the community.  Cheers to the next fifty years of Major League Baseball in the great city of Houston.



A Dome of Glaring Proportions


A dream came true on April 9, 1965 for Houston Astros President Roy Hofheinz. Three years of construction and planning came down to this one day where the eyes of the world would bestow upon Space City, Texas as a new era of sports was formally introduced with the opening of the Astrodome.  While Houston’s entry into Major League Baseball began as the Colt .45’s in 1962, they now emerged as the Astros, complete with stars in their eyes as well as their uniforms. Houston was in the spotlight of the world.  Hofheinz, creator of the Harris County Domed Stadium, had every right to stand proud as the gates opened to the masses for the very first time.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and wife Ladybird were in attendance for the first game on this Friday night.  Tons of media from across the world were on site to record the opening of the world’s first domed stadium. The legendary Mickey Mantle hit a 400-foot home run to center to the amazement of all fans in the stands. The Astrodome gleamed across the night sky as Houston took on the American League Champion New York Yankees in an exhibition game that ended in a 12-inning, 2-1 victory for the Astros.  In the midst of celebration, however, Hofheinz also had other thoughts orbiting the back of his mind as he looked out to the playing field from his elaborate seventh level suite.

The 642-foot roof span of the Astrodome featured 4,596 skylights that were designed to filter the necessary light to allow a grass field to grow.  They were produced of translucent Lucite, designed to collectively diffuse an even amount of sunlight throughout and prevent shadows on the stadium field from the many steel girders above.  The Astros took the field for the first scrimmage in the Dome on Thursday, April 8th against their Oklahoma City farm club. While the skylights of the Astrodome allowed the great amount of sunlight filtering through the domed roof during the day, the Lucite also produced a tremendous glare that blinded outfielders.  Routine fly balls were missed entirely by fielders during the scrimmage, especially in left and centerfield where they claimed the glare was worst.  This wasn’t the first time the glare had been noted. Previous visits to the Dome by some of the Astros players resulted in warnings of such a problem.  Joe Morgan hit a home run during the lively scrimmage between the Astros and 89ers.  The awe-inspiring Astrodome scoreboard “Home Run Spectacular” was set off for the first time and everyone in attendance of this small gathering was proud of this new sports palace.  But it was also very apparent to Astros management that the glare problem would have to be addressed swiftly.  The Astrodome was opening the next day but glare would not be a problem because it was a night game.

By the morning of April 9th the Astros decided that the next day’s afternoon exhibition game (the second of five during the Astrodome’s opening weekend) would be played with color-dyed baseballs.  With approval of National League President Warren Giles, the team used yellow, orange and cerise dyes on baseballs in an effort to determine a color which might help see a baseball against the glare coming through the domed roof.  Giles noted the Brooklyn Dodgers experimented with yellow baseballs in 1938 during a doubleheader but usage was stopped because the baseballs became discolored more quickly than a normal ball.  Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley, an advocate of dyed baseballs in the Major Leagues, sent six dozen orange baseballs for the Astros to experiment with.  In addition, several shades of sunglasses were delivered to the team.  There were twenty-one days games schedule at the Astrodome in 1965 and a solution had to be found.  There were four fly balls lost in the glare of the skylights during the afternoon exhibition game on Saturday, April 10th with the Baltimore Orioles.

Growing grass was not an initial issue in the Astrodome.  It was proven to work over two summers of experiments at Texas A&M University.  The hybrid was called Tifway 419, a blend of African and Common Bermuda grass.  It was grown at the Davidson Grass Farm in Wharton, Texas and was considered to be the best grass to maintain under the controlled conditions of the Astrodome.  Dirt from the Astrodome floor was trucked to the farm and blended with a mixture of concrete sand, clay soil and peat to provide a strong foundation for growth and footing to a major league field.  In November, 1964, Houston players Don Nottebart and Rusty Staub visited the grass farm along with Manager Lum Harris to inspect the sod that would be installed at the Astrodome within a few weeks.

Roy Hofheinz and General Manager Paul Richards met with the DuPont Company, manufacturers of the dome skylights to discuss possible solutions to the glare.  Phone calls flooded the Astros offices with suggestions on how to solve the glare problem.  Some of the ideas included the use of a balloon or blimp inside the Astrodome during day games to shield the amount of sunlight.  “Never fear.  I will not be the first man to call a game on account of sunshine,” Roy Hofheinz stated on April 17, 1965.  The Astros were on a road trip and Hofheinz wanted a solution before the team returned to Houston.  It was decided the Astrodome skylights would be painted with a translucent acrylic coating over a three day period at a cost of $20,000.  The coating had been suggested by numerous greenhouse owners and was approved by a group of architects and engineers specially brought in by the Astros.

By April 22nd seven hundred gallons of off-white paint was sprayed to the top of the Astrodome and diminished sunlight in the stadium by 25-40%.  There had been a dramatic cut in sun glare but the effect on the grass playing field was just as immediate.  The field began to decay and develop a yellowish tint.  Constant watering did not help.  By mid-May Astrodome crews were spraying green paint on a dried out field of grass. Despite the efforts of painting the domed roof, there were still spots of persistent glare. On May 23rd, Jim Ray Hart of the San Francisco Giants hit a routine two-out fly ball in the first inning.  Centerfielder Jim Wynn gave chase but lost the baseball in a patch of glare against the dome skylights. The result was a three-run inside-the-park home run.  Two days later crews were once again on top of the Astrodome spraying another layer of paint.

With two paint jobs to the Astrodome roof, the glare did eventually become less of a problem but it also killed the grass playing field.  Unknowingly at the time was how the constant air-conditioning inside the Astrodome actually caused the grass to dry quicker after being watered.  Despite replacing grass in patches, spreading sawdust to fill in spots and spray painting, it was very evident that the playing field in the Astrodome was doomed.  As the 1965 season progressed the field became increasingly more difficult to play on.  From the stands the field looked nice and green. Many players claimed the field was as hard as concrete and too much dust kicked up on plays.

The thought of an artificial playing surface for the Astrodome was considered by Roy Hofheinz during construction.  The Dome would be used for other events than baseball and the field would need to be versatile. Astrodome lead architect Si Morris provided a carpet-like material to the Houston front office at the suggestion of Hofheinz.  GM Paul Richards noted that players were not used to playing on an artificial surface and it could lead to injuries. The general consensus agreed with Richards but Hofheinz had privately laid the groundwork for artificial turf to become a necessity at some point in the future.  Playing baseball indoors was controversial enough with baseball purists without bringing an artificial field into the mix.

Tal Smith helped Roy Hofheinz oversee construction of the Astrodome in almost every detail. He was now tasked to find a permanent solution for the decayed Astros playing field.  The U.S. military commissioned a study in the early 1960s to explore the difference of motor skills between kids who grew up in city versus country environments.  The appointed Ford Foundation discovered city kids needed more open playing fields and contacted the Monsanto Company about developing an artificial surface that would look like grass, be installed in a city environment and withstand heavy traffic over a period of years.  The first installation of this new synthetic turf was at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island in 1964.  Smith learned of this and contacted Monsanto and thirty-foot samples of their “Chemgrass” were sent to Houston for preliminary tests.  Roy Hofheinz brought the Harris County Sheriff’s mounted patrol to ride on it, cars drove over it and elephants even trampled the surface.  In November, 1965 the Monsanto Company agreed to make its first installation of an artificial surface at the Astrodome after Roy Hofheinz offered the stadium as a free test site.

On the evening of January 17, 1966 a group of Astros players and members of the University of Houston football team participated in a private practice session attended by Hofheinz, other front office staff and representatives of Monsanto.  An infield was set up on an all-dirt floor that was being prepared for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in the Astrodome.  Astros players ran across the surface and also gave their opinions on the true bounce of a baseball across the artificial surface.  Hofheinz decided the first home exhibition game of 1966 would be played on what was now being called “Astroturf”.  The declaration took the Monsanto representatives by surprise as they felt this surface wasn’t ready for permanent use.  It was soon agreed that Astroturf would be installed for the infield and foul territories as a test to begin the 1966 season.  Astros third baseman Bob Aspromonte, who participated in the practice, said “I would rate the Astroturf infield as one of the top two in baseball.  The only infield that might be better is the infield at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, but there you have to worry about the darn wind.”

Despite making a decision to install Astroturf in the Astrodome, Roy Hofheinz was not quick to make a public announcement on its use.  New pallets of grass were being installed to the Astrodome’s outfield in March, 1966.  Hofheinz stated, “We have had the soil changed on the playing field and feel confident that this will help keep the grass in a healthy condition for an indefinite period.  There are still other playing surfaces that have been studied and we are exploring every possibility to come up with a playing surface that will best suit the multi-purpose needs of the Astrodome.”  The Astros soon announced they would begin using baseball’s first portable pitching mound, which would make it possible to convert the Astrodome field for other sports and events without damaging the mound.  The mound would be on a steel base of which clamps would connect and allow the mound to be hauled away safely for storage.

Astroturf made its public debut during an exhibition game between the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers on March 19, 1966.  Two hundred news media along with National League President Warren Giles watched nineteen year-old Larry Dierker square off against Johnny Podres.  Roy Hofheinz greeted media by presenting small swaths of Astroturf, the same field in which was used for the test two months prior.  Remaining portions of Astroturf were sold at the Galaxy Gift Shops in the Astrodome for $1 apiece.  The backside of each piece was stamped “ASTROTURF FROM THE ASTRODOME – HOUSTON, TEXAS”  The Dodgers were back in Houston on April 18th as the two teams played the first-ever regular season game on an Astroturf field.  On July 6th the Astros grounds crew began removal of all remaining grass in the outfield in preparation of more than 90,000 additional square feet of Astroturf.  The last piece of sod was sent in a package to Chicago Cubs Manager Leo Durocher, who had been very opinionated against Astroturf.  Durocher later returned the package with a pound of fertilizer included to Astros Publicity Director Bill Giles.  In 1966 Leo Durocher ripped the dugout phone off the wall at two separate games in frustration to Astro rallies.  Each time the Astros sent a repair bill.

The first game played on a complete Astroturf field was on July 19, 1966 as the Astros won 8-2 over the Philadelphia Phillies.  Turk Farrell tossed a complete game and contributed with a three-run homer in the game.  Phillies Manager Gene Mauch added, “I don’t think the AstroTurf is going to play a big part in the outcome of many games. The primary question to some of us was if it was going to be safe. And from what I could see, it looks safe enough.”

Astroturf spread throughout Major League Baseball and other sports across the United States and around the world.  The Astrodome saw replacement of the revolutionary surface in 1978 in which pieces of the original 1966 field were given away to fans.  A new “Astroturf-8” surface was later installed in 1988 that gave the Astros a separate playing surface from the turf used for football.  It marked the first time a stadium utilized two separate Astroturf fields for baseball and football.

The move to Minute Maid Park in 2000 marked the first time the Astros played a home game on grass since the debut of Astroturf in 1966.  Houston played its final game on a traditional Astroturf surface in 2004 against the Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium.  The late 1990s and 2000s saw many Major League cities return to natural grass with the building of several new baseball-only ballparks. Astroturf as was once used in the Astrodome and other major stadiums has now become mostly obsolete.  But the use of artificial turf continues on all levels of sports.  It has evolved into a surface that doesn’t cause as many injuries.  The name Astroturf has even given way to newer ones.  Good or bad, there is no doubt that Astroturf revolutionized sports.